Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Mars: Meaningless Step for Man, Giant Waste for Mankind

This column by Anne Applebaum captures well my stance towards Bush's proposal for a manned mission to Mars: it's a damned silly idea, especially in this time of gigantic budget deficits stretching as far as the eye can see.

The first colour pictures from the NASA space probe expedition to Mars have now been published. They look like - well, they look like pictures of a lifeless, distant planet. They show blank, empty landscapes. They show craters and boulders; red sand.

Death Valley, the most desolate of American deserts, at least contains strange cacti, vicious scorpions, the odd oasis. Mars has far less than that. Not only does the planet have no life, it has no air, no water, no warmth. The temperature on the Martian surface hardly rises much above minus 18 degrees, and can drop more than 100 degrees below that.

Mars, as a certain pop star once put it, is not the kind of place to raise your kids. Nor is it the kind of place anybody is ever going to visit, as some of the NASA scientists know perfectly well. Even leaving aside the cold, the lack of atmosphere and the absence of water, there is the deadly radiation. If the average person on Earth absorbs about 350 millirems of radiation every year, an astronaut travelling to Mars would absorb about 130,000 millirems of a particularly virulent form of radiation that would probably destroy every cell in his body.

"Space is not Star Trek, " said one NASA scientist, "but the public certainly doesn't understand that."

No, the public does not understand that. And no, not all scientists, or all politicians, are trying terribly hard to explain it either. Too often, rational descriptions of the inhuman, even anti-human living conditions in space give way to public hints that more manned space travel is just around the corner; that a manned Mars mission is next; that there is some grand philosophical reason to keep sending human beings away from the only planet where human life is possible. One actual Star Trek actor, Robert Picardo, the ship's holographic doctor, enthused this week that "we really should have a timetable to send a man to Mars . . . Mars should be part of our travel plans." Naive, perhaps, but fundamentally not much different from President George Bush's grandiloquent words after the Columbia disaster: "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."

But why should it go on? Or, at least, why should the human travel part of it go on? Crowded out of the news this week was the small fact that the troubled international space station, which is itself accessible only by the troubled space shuttle, has sprung a leak. Also somehow played down is the fact that the search for "life" on Mars - proof, as the enthusiasts have it, that we are "not alone" in the universe - is not a search for sentient beings but rather a search for evidence that billions of years ago there might possibly have been a few microbes. It is hard to see how that sort of information is going to heal our cosmic loneliness, let alone lead to the construction of condo units on Mars.

Any so-called advocate of small government who is excited by this Mars nonsense ought to turn in his conservative/libertarian credentials and go find some other political home to call his own. Manned space-flight on the government dime, in any incarnation, is a waste of money, of essentially no lasting scientific value, and a trip to either the moon or Mars would be especially wasteful. I would rather that governments cease altogether regarding their citizens' hard-earned money as theirs to toss at whatever grand schemes they please, but if politicians are so determined to throw vast sums around in the name of science, there are far better ways of doing so than funding manned space programs, and I'm even willing to offer a suggestion of my own; revive the Superconducting Super Collider.

Even at twice the one-time projected cost of $20 billion, the SSC would still be far more affordable than any mission to Mars ever would be, and the prospects of learning something profound about our universe would actually be pretty good - which is a lot more than can be said to any retread of the Apollo program. But what are the odds of this happening? Fundamental breakthroughs in particle physics are not "sexy" in the simple-minded way in which space programs are sexy; they don't capture the imaginations of children of all ages - especially "grown-up" children - in the manner that Buck Rogers daydreams do; they are therefore of little use in getting politicians re-elected, and are apt to be sacrificed for the sake of worthless rubbish like the International Space Station, or hare-brained missions to Mars, at the first opportunity.

UPDATE: Here's what John Van Allen (he of the Van Allen radiation belt) has to say about Bush's Mars proposal:

James Van Allen, the namesake for the Van Allen Belts of intense radiation that encircle the earth, said Monday that such manned space missions have become too expensive and better results can be gained by robotic spacecraft.

"I'm quite unimpressed by any arguments for it," Van Allen, 89, said in an interview from his office at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

"I'm one of the most durable and fervent advocates of space exploration, but my take is that we could do it robotically at far less cost and far greater quantity and quality of results," he said.


Van Allen said he doesn't have any direct knowledge of Bush's plans yet. But he thinks the time has passed for the usefulness of manned space flight.

"These days, it's really been uninteresting except when disasters occur," Van Allen said. "I think we need someone in a responsible political position to have the courage to say, 'Let's terminate human spaceflight.'"

Needless to say, Bush isn't that man of courage, but what about the Democratic challengers? Does any of them have the cojones to come out and say "this scheme would be an insane waste of money", or are they all too scared of being thought visionless killjoys?